Tuesday, May 26, 2015

STEEP TEA: Mary di Michele

I am not the first, nor will I be the last to write poems in response to another writer's work. As Elaine Scarry wrote, beauty begets beauty. I don't know if my poems may be described as beautiful, but they are begotten by beauty. My poem "In Death As In Life" was written after Mary di Michele's translation of a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, that great Italian poet and filmmaker. Pasolini's poem speculates about the day of his death, how he would die and where, "in some city, Trieste or Udine," in di Michele's translation. The poem inspired me to make an important decision about my final resting place after living a migrant's life. I wanted to put on record the place to scatter my ashes.

Di Michele has a special link to Pasolini as she explained in her book of response poems THE FLOWERS OF YOUTH. After reading the book, I wrote this review on my blog:

You read up on a great writer and director, what he wrote and what others wrote about him. You find affinities in thought and temperament, though you live in different times and places. You fly to Italy for an academic conference and make the pilgrimage to the writer's grave at Casarsa. There, sitting on a bench shaded by cypress, weeping for a man you have never met, you hear a voice whispering to you in Italian, which you don't know how to write, but find yourself transcribing. Translated into English, the voice said,

I leave the city and discover the sky,
The world is bigger than I realized,
Where there's nobody the stars are myriad.

That was what happened to Mary di Michele, according to her book's prologue, and what inspired her to write The Flower of Youth. The title is the same as that of the volume of verse Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote in dialect about his coming of age in the countryside during World War II. The verse that di Michele heard at Pasolini's grave speaks of the affinities that she found in the Italian writer. The usual migration goes from the country to the city in the search of a bigger world. di Michelle and Pasolini, however, found their world enlarged by leaving the city for the countryside. In her case, that journey is also a return, a homecoming, from Canada to Italy. Born in Lanciano, Italy, in 1949, she moved with her family to Toronto when she was six.

The Flower of Youth is organized in four parts. The Prologue narrates in verse and prose di Michele's journey to Pasolini's grave. Part II "Impure Acts," the bulk of the book, speaks in the voice of Pasolini about the struggle between his sexuality and his faith. Instead of fighting in the war, he followed his mother into the countryside to set up a school for boys too young to be conscripted. di Michelle's poems take off from his own memoir about that period of sexual awakening. In Part III "After Pasolini," she translates the two very different versions of the poem that Pasolini wrote about his death, and she adds what she calls a permutation, a poem of her own about the reported circumstances of his death that deploys motifs from his poems. Part IV the epilogue explains the structure of di Michele's book.

The poems in Part II reproduce what di Michele discovered to her surprise when she read Pasolini's memoir. The World War is sidelined in favor of the internal battle. The bombs keep falling, but the real devastations are those of the heart and its desires. Most of the poems are written in quatrains with the last line of each quatrain shorter than the rest and indented. This stanzaic form proves to be admirably malleable and musical in di Michele's hands. The opening stanza of "Postscript(s)" introduces gently yet pointedly Pasolini's story in di Michelle's chosen form:

The fall of '47 I was 25 and still living
in Viluta. What made me stay so long?
What made me linger in that nothing place,
xxxxxxxxxxxthat hamlet of ten houses?

The enjambment after "living" subtly reminds us of the casualties of war. The repetition of "What made me" fills out the entire length of the third line and the next, which also contracts to round up the small hamlet. di Michelle is also fond of breaking a line between an adjective and its noun. That device works well in many instances to maintain narrative momentum, but may seem arbitrary in some places.

The sentiments traced in these poems are not extraordinary, but they are delicate. Sexual rendezvous takes place in discreet fields and secret woods, to which the reader's eyes are not privy, though enticed. In a few places, the plain language descends into conventionality, as when de Michele's Pasolini complains of a boy that "He erected invisible walls/ against me" ("Spring Far Behind"). The same poem, however, quickens in the end when Pasolini dreams of lying with him again in "a familiar bed," which for them is "some ditch fragrant with primrose." The invisible walls are unreal, a mere idea, but the ditch smelling of primrose brings the country and the sex to the nose.

In like manner the best poems of the book bring to life the physical environment in which the drama of love not only takes place but finds its embodiment. In "Hidden Corners/The Earth Moves," spring has returned and so has B. naked to the waist. He leads Pasolini into the woods, where

The dew had dried but the stones, gravel
from the river bank, still glistened; in the grove
where we lay together the Earth trembled
xxxxxxxxxxxxxwith the passing trains.

The trains unexpectedly and perfectly convey the temporary vibrations of the encounter. In "A Thousand Birds," it's summer and the boys go back to swimming naked at the pit, their playful cries harmonizing with birdsong. Sitting by the pit, distracted from his Tasso and Tommaseo, di Michele's Pasolini is keenly aware of his envy "for those meadows where B. stepped/ shoeless into the long grass." The mixture of the sacred ("shoeless") and the sensual ("the long grass") is captured vividly in a memorable image. With such images the book convinces us that the country is more bountiful than the city.

No comments: